Robbie Robertson was again sparked by America, old friends on Storyville

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Robbie Robertson has, over the years, become something of a curator of things that Americans take for granted. That meant stirring songs about the country’s rich history and its damnable missteps, but also deep dives into its music folkways — from country and R&B to, within the percolating grooves of Storyville, that unnameable gumbo of sounds which emanate across the Mississippi River out of New Orleans.

Trips to the Deep South with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks transformed Robbie Robertson as a youngster, adding dimension to an imagination that had originally been sparked by the faint signal of U.S. radio stations drifting into his native Canada. What we saw was different than what he did; as an outsider he experienced it all with new eyes.

“New Orleans is the most musical place I’ve ever been in my life, where there’s more music per square block than anywhere on the planet,” Robertson told Rolling Stone at the time. “Music just seeps out of every crack and every swamp down there. Playing with Ronnie Hawkins when we were the Hawks, back in the old days, was my ticket to the fountainhead. When I was 14, I was in a group called Little Caesar and the Consoles, which was a Huey ‘Piano’ Smith-wannabe band. That’s how long this obsession has been going on.”

Certainly, in his time with the Band, Robbie Robertson had stirred in a few tinges of Big Easy blues. The consistent presence of Allen Toussaint assured that. But Storyville represented an immersive moment, one every bit as resonant — at its best — as Robertson’s earlier forays into the American Civil War years, and into the devastation wrought upon its native peoples.

It’s an imperfect record, if only because of its unwieldy theme. (Back then, Robertson described Storyville, released on September 30, 1991, as a kind of divine comedy — like “Dante and Beatrice Go Downtown.”) More generally, however, songs like “Night Parade” absorb the unfettered rhythms and dark mysteries of the city, refashioning them in a textured, wide-screen setting.

Local legends populate the project, perhaps most notably the Meters, giving tracks like “Night Parade” their heart and soul. And in this moment of moon-lit mystery, a voodoo night of both promise and danger, his whispered entreaties have never sounded more perfectly cast.

And so, “Night Parade” works on two levels. In once again interpreting our culture back to us, Robbie Robertson shines a light on an elemental part of rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA — the sound of New Orleans is compact, unique and enduring, despite the criminal lack of wider attention for its original influence and lingering joys — even as he finds another deeply resonant setting for his unique brand of storytelling.

As Robbie Robertson followed his restless muse into film scores and then into a belated solo career, intersections with his former Band mates were few and far between — but almost always high points. The late Rick Danko’s lonesome wail, in particular, seemed to couch Robertson’s rough-hewn vocals, to give them an added weight that directly recalled their earlier triumphs together.

“Hold Back the Dawn,” a darkly intriguing song from 1991’s Storyville, makes great use of Bill Dillon’s spacious asides, and an intriguing percussion from Alex Acuna. But, up until Danko arrives, it’s mostly atmospherics — damp and mysterious, to be sure, but really just twilit shadows without a complete form.

Rick Danko gives shape to the yearning at this song’s center. When he trails in behind Robbie Robertson, echoing the title, it’s with a trembling sense of expectation. You sense, finally, the fear (of loss, of leaving, of abandonment) that girds every passion. Robertson offers the chorus with a rangy whisper, but Danko gives it every part of his heart.

He completes the picture, and something magical happens. Robertson’s next thoughts, on a river theme, gain new power. “Hold Back the Dawn” has become something else, a tucked-away gem that speaks — in the shared vocal, and the shared experiences, of these two former collaborators — directly to that larger sense of suspended animation that surrounds a lover’s longing. Everything stops, except for the tangle of emotion.

It also speaks to that feeling when old friends meet again. There’s a tangle there, too. Joy, in having them together once more. But also, something sadder. As Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson improvise through the ending of “Hold Back the Dawn,” their vocals pushing and pulling one another, they give us a glimpse both of what once was and also what might have been if the fates hadn’t sent the Band scattering in different directions.

“Soap Box Preacher,” even without the presence of Garth Hudson, stands as one of the most direct solo links to Robbie Robertson’s earlier triumphs with the Band. In tone, feel and musical approach, this standout moment from 1991’s Storyville holds up well along side the best of what came before.

As obvious as that sentiment might sound, it’s not — not within the context of Robbie Robertson’s often-determinedly adventurous time away from the Band. He’s tended to go far afield of expectations, pushing himself in ways that tended to surprise, occasionally frustrate but more typically reward those willing to put aside nostalgia in favor of brand new horizons.

Yet, as this involving street-corner fable unfolds, it’s clear all over again that you can take Robbie Robertson out of context, but — when the muse turns a certain way, and the music gathers just right, and he’s surrounded by simpatico collaborators like Hudson and Neil Young — he’s still Robbie Robertson.

Garth Hudson, the reliable genius, is featured on keyboards while Young takes over the role of yearning second vocal that usually went to Rick Danko. Jerry Marotta and Ronald Jones offer canny takes on Levon Helm’s legendary lope, adding in a few just-right touches of second-line fun. In place of Allen Toussaint, who so often put new muscle on the Band’s music, steps arranger Wardell Quezergue.

Together, they create a sense of reverent wonderment around one of Robbie Robertson’s very best modern-era lyrics. We find a seer walking determinedly through “Soap Box Preacher,” his visage completed by proud shoes and a cross of passion, ignoring as best he can “the wreckage and the rumble” all round to share his simple message of faith.

“Soap Box Preacher” rewarded those who’d waited, perhaps impatiently, in the hopes that Robertson could conjure such magic again with a character as fully formed and memorable as Virgil Caine, Crazy Chester or the rootless wanderers of “Acadian Driftwood.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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